SENSATION – Nick Mamatas


When Julia Hernandez leaves her husband, shoots a real estate developer, and then vanishes without a trace, she slips out of the world she knew and into the Simulacrum—a place where human history is both guided and thwarted by the conflict between a species of anarchist wasps and a collective of hyperintelligent spiders. When Julia’s ex-husband Raymond spots her in a grocery store he doesn’t usually patronize, he’s soon drawn into an underworld of radical political gestures where Julia is the new media sensation of both this world and the Simulacrum. Told ultimately from the collective point of view of another species, this allegorical novel plays with the elements of the Simulacrum apparent in real life—media reports, business speak, blog entries, text messages, psychological-evaluation forms, and the lies lovers tell one another—and poses a fascinating idea that displaces human beings from the center of the universe and makes them simply the pawns of two warring species.


“Where are you going? What’s the matter?” Raymond said. No coo would sooth him then.
“Oh, I’m leaving you,” Julia said. She had her duffle bag out and was randomly scooping up clothing from her two drawers in their shared dresser.
Julia looked at Raymond closely. “I’m not going to give you a reason. I like you like this. I like the idea that your stomach just turned to concrete. That you might be ready to threaten me, maybe even hit me.” Raymond’s fists were balled up, as they often were when he was frustrated, but he hadn’t even thought of punching Julia, of grabbing a fistful of her hair and swinging her head against the side of the doorjamb, until she’d said that.
“Don’t say a fucking word. I have to see how long it will take for me to have another cock inside me. I’m aiming for under an hour.” She reached into her duffle and produced a derringer. It looked chrome-kitschy, like some obscure instrument for applying eye make-up, or like something one might buy at Restoration Hardware to express a desire to be thought of as a person who liked to drink gin and read Hemingway, and she pointed it lazily at Raymond.

This is a text which owes much of its influence, I would guess, to good ol’ Dick–Philip K that is, not some other Dick; for more on Dick click Arthur B’s Ferretbrain coverage in which he gathers all his Dicks–and inherits Dick’s attitude toward women. This isn’t necessarily representative of Mamatas as a writer, since in his short fiction the women are distinctly not Dickean (Dickish?) whereas Dick’s women are consistently Dickean across the board. Regardless, the most that can be said of how this novel deals with women is that can’t be attributed necessarily to a pathetic male character’s narrow perspective–the real narrator being a collective of aforementioned hyperintelligent spiders, who has a propensity for referring to sex as “an act of physical love.”

At first glance the novel has a bit of the experimental to it, the narrative slipping into the collective pronoun without warning, but after a while you get used to that. Parts of it are told in e-mails, interviews, and text arrangements like so:

Which is interesting and striking, though after a while you get used to this sort of thing too (this particular page being only one instance of this much formatting experiment, IIRC). It’s not as jarring as you might think, and much of the text is fairly conventional. With regards to the subject matter I’m not familiar enough with its ideas–anarchists are too often majority-people who are into anarchy because they think it’s cool and/or it’s the only axis on which they see themselves oppressed (see Anonymous, a movement full of straight white boys from the west), in the process of which they erase the differences between themselves and, say, a queer POC because we’re all humans amirite. I can appreciate wanting to destroy capitalism because it’s the root of kyriarchy though I’m not convinced removing capitalism will suddenly obliterate things like–I dunno–racism, but okay. Not that Mamatas espouses all this with a straight face–the Sans Nom movement in Sensation consists largely of ridiculous, clueless “members” who are entirely lacking in self-awareness much like Anonymous, see also the name.

If the novel is earnest about anything, it’s its own lack of earnestness. There are forays into that preoccupation with sideways reality commonly found in China Mieville novels (compare the Simulacrum to The City and the City) but which never takes over the narrative. There are forays into conspiracy theories made real–the spiders and the wasps being the “real” movers and shakers behind humanity–but the novel doesn’t go all in for that either.

In any case, certainly an interesting book.

6 thoughts on “SENSATION – Nick Mamatas

  1. The Dick influence is almost certainly the main one considering that there’s actually a PKD short story about a dude who gets caught up between a war between rival conspiracies of gross bugs on the one side and benign spiders on the other.

    Speaking of which, I should really get on with that article series.

    • Hmmm…it’s a bit weird to know the major plot point is based on another work, though I suppose one can look at it as a retelling in the way Deathless was a retelling of Russian mythology?

      Or does this cleave too closely to the original, where reading the original gives away the story here?

      • SENSATION is not based on the PKD story, which I’ve not read. (Nor is it based on Fritz Leiber’s BIG TIME, which has “Snakes” and “Spiders”, which I’ve also not read. Someone mentioned it to me when SENSATION came out.) The inspiration for the idea came from this article, which I saw in 2000:

        It is “a bit weird” that someone would draw such expansive conclusions about a book based on a comment from someone who hasn’t read it.

  2. “…capitalism because it’s the root of kyriarchy…”

    I’m not quite sure on what this statement is based. Seeing that in the past kyriarchy existed in places that had no notion of capitalism (unless I’m misunderstanding this word?). Even if you classify those places as capitalist, other places that were without doubt un-capitalist (Soviet Russia, for one) had plenty of oppression – cultural, etc.

    • It’s not my line of reasoning, but some Marxists (or anarchists, I guess) that I’ve encountered online think that way.

  3. yeah, it’s part of vulgar old leftist marxism to assume that abolishing capitalism simultaneously abolishes other bases of grievance. it’s childish.

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